Christians have a long history of being mocked on TV. However, at the same time, there are quite a few that are represented as nearly perfect people. But very few Christians are portrayed how the average Christian really is.
“Parks and Recreation” has the conservative leader of the Society for Family Stability Foundation, Marsha Langman. She is portrayed as basically every extreme Christian protestor and politician all rolled into one person. She is intolerant to the point of blatant ignorance, yet she is so convinced she is right, that she doesn’t care. And she aims to make sure everyone lives just like she does.
“The Office” has the hypocritical (and blind of it) character, Angela. She lives in a constant state of judgment of other people for not following her Christian morality and beliefs. Yet, she is woefully ignorant of even basic tenants of the faith, as she believes she should be vegetarian and also that cats go to Heaven (unless they are euthanized). Oh, also, she just can’t stop sleeping with people who she isn’t in a relationship with.
“The Middle” has the song-singing advice-giving God-loving traveling youth pastor who is so non-judgmental and sweet and perfect that it makes me queasy. He always has an upbeat attitude and a song in his heart and everybody wants his advice, which is treated as advice from God himself, because it’s always right.
And of course, we have good ol’ Ned Flanders. In the 24 laugh-filled seasons of “The Simpson’s,” Ned Flanders has largely been the holiest-of-thous. Nice to your face, but sure of your damnation in private. And sure, he’s gone through quite a few tough times – hurricane destroys his home, wife killed by T-shirt cannon, the Leftorium being on the verge of bankrupting his entire family, and even holing up in the church when the whole town of Springfield was minutes from being destroyed by the government – and yet, despite it all, he has kept the faith. But he’s done it in a way that anyone looking at him from the outside thinks he’s insane, delusional, annoying, and in denial.
But, out of all the “Christian” characters portrayed on TV today, I think that the most realistic of them all is Shirley Bennett, played by Yvette Nicole Brown (a Christian herself) on NBC’s “Community.” Here are 7 reasons why:
1. She does not have a perfect life.
Professor Whitman: “WHY ARE YOU HERE?!”
Shirley: “Because I wasted fifteen years of my life on a man who left me with nothing but stretch marks and a foggy memory of two bland orgasms and now it’s time to get what’s mine!”
Christians on TV are often portrayed as people with no problems. Someone who feels blessed and is devoted to God because their life is perfect. But when tough times come, suddenly they cry, “Why has God forsaken me?!”
When we are first introduced to Shirley, she is divorced from her husband, who cheated on her and left her and their two kids for his mistress. Yet, she is not questioning her faith. She is not wondering why God is doing this to her. She knows that God is not to blame for the free will of her husband to be a terrible person. In fact, her faith may be all that is giving her hope to still be the kind, compassionate person she should be.
This is real Christianity. We never claim that becoming a Christian will guarantee you a perfect life. In fact, we believe it is quite the opposite. However, we know that God uses all things for the good of those who love Him. It gives us hope, even in our darkest times, and strength where we once had none.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. –I Peter 4:12-13 (NIV)
2. She slowly learns the correct way to be tolerant.
Shirley: “Uh, Annie, I didn’t know you weren’t, uh, Christian.”
Annie: “Yep. One might even say I’m Jewish.”
Shirley: “Oh, tha-that’s good for you. Tha-that’s wonderful. I respect all religions of the world.”
Abed: “I’m Muslim.”
Troy: “Jehovah’s Witness.”
Shirley: “The Lord is testing me.”
Christians on TV are usually either intolerant, hypocrites, or intolerant hypocrites. Intolerance in Christianity is almost a stereotype, because it assumes that Christians think that people who belong to other religions, or no religion at all, are evil. This is not the case.
In the first season, we find that Shirley is pretty intolerant of other’s belief systems (though she pretends not to be). However, as time moves on and lessons are learned, she learns not to treat people with different beliefs as lesser people than her, while, at the same time, she desires for her friends to experience the same joy she has found in Christianity, and she earnestly struggles how to share her faith without offending others.
I think her growth in this area has been quite inspiring. Christians do tend to have an “Us vs. Them” mentality when they are young in the faith, but as time goes on, we realize that everybody came to their beliefs after years of living, thinking, questioning, reasoning, and choosing. Someone’s worldview is a personal decision that is rarely made lightly, so for a Christian to just come out and say, “Your religion is wrong,” well, that is not only disrespectful of their religion, but it is basically telling someone that their whole life is garbage. We are called to spread the Gospel to everyone, but we can’t beat it into people. We need to share our testimony and beliefs in respectful ways, plant the seeds, and let God do the cultivating.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. -Col. 4:5-6 (NIV)
3. Every time she gets holier-than-thou, it backfires.
Shirley: “I can’t believe I’m giving pies to a drug addict!”
Britta: “Drug addict? You’re a pie pusher! You push pies to get love!”
Christians on TV are often presented as spiritual know-it-all’s who have it all figured out and, let’s face it, are just better than everyone else. In “The Simpson’s,” Ned Flanders belongs to a bowling team called The Holy Roller’s, and when he knocks down all but one pin, a simple look to the sky while saying, “It’s Ned,” sends a ray of Heavenly light down to knock over the remaining pin for a strike.
Shirley does have a bad habit of thinking that being the only Christian makes her better than everyone else. And it often gets her into trouble, or at least, she gets taken down a peg or two. And what is often the case, is that her “holier-than-thou” attitude is actually masking a deeper pain in her own life that she tried to cover up, like when she was throwing a very Christ-centered Christmas party for her non-Christian friends. In reality, her zeal was masking a deep pain in her life, this being the first Christmas since her husband left her and broke up their family.
Christians often fall into the trap of wearing “holy” masks to cover up pain in their lives. We don’t want anyone to know we are suffering, that we don’t have it all together, or even that we have doubts sometimes. But this is not helping our cause.
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 (NIV)
4. She is a flawed human being.
Britta: “Shirley, don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
Shirley: “Of you.”
Now, Christians ARE often portrayed as flawed human beings on TV, but often, they are portrayed as deliberate hypocrites, knowing they are doing the wrong thing and not caring.
Shirley knows she has problems and struggles with them every day. She struggles with gossip, anger, revenge, being overly sensitive, divorce, drinking, and she has made quite a few mistakes, including sleeping with a man outside of marriage (though, to be fair, they were about to be eaten by zombies). And she is not proud of any of them. She hates that she is so flawed and is often beating herself up for it.
Real Christians are exactly like this, and if they claim they aren’t, then they are in denial. Christianity doesn’t make you a better person; it just makes you a forgiven one. We are all just as human as anyone else. We are still going to sin, we are still going to screw up, and we are still going to do it a lot. It is really hard to rely on God all the time, because following God is scary sometimes. Doing the right thing is hard. It is much easier to go with the crowd, or drown our sorrows. We are not perfect and we never will be. The difference is, we strive to be. We have found a better way, and though we don’t always choose that better path when life gets hard, when we do, we don’t regret it. God wants us to be happy, but happiness is hard work and sometimes we can’t handle it.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. -Romans 7:15 (NIV)
5. She is devoted to her marriage.
Andre Bennett (Shirley’s ex-husband, on trying to reconcile with Shirley): “The old me would have been long gone by now. I didn’t think I could ever change, but I’ma tell you, the love of a good woman makes anything possible.”
Christian marriages on TV are often portrayed as just as frivolous as any other these days. One screw up, you kick him to the curb and find a new man. One who won’t screw up (as if someone like that exists).
As I explained earlier, Shirley comes into this show after a divorce, in which her husband cheated and then left with his mistress. However, even though she is angry at him, and even at one point hoped he would come crawling back and she could tell him to “go to Hell,” she still considered him her husband and wasn’t ready to give up on him. In season 2, we see him coming back and them reconciling, even getting remarried in season 3. This is one of my favorite stories in Community. He screwed up horribly, he realized it, he came back and apologized, and she agreed to give him another chance, which ended in a successful reconciling.
Most people would be like Britta Perry in this instance and say that Shirley is being naïve and idiotic for allowing her cheating husband back into her life, but the truth is, people make mistakes and marriages get rough, but that doesn’t mean they are destined to fail. And despite what you’ve been told, people do change. When something is broken, you work on it until it’s fixed, not throw it out and get a new one.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. -1 Cor. 13:4-8a (NIV)
6. She has compassion for everyone.
Shirley: “Kind people are always kind. Not just when it’s easy.”
Christians on TV are rarely played as compassionate people. They are judgmental, hypocritical, or just plain mean.
To be fair, Shirley has been all three of these things, but almost in every instance, she forgives or seeks forgiveness. She cares about people, even people who sexually harass her, people who hurt her, and even “innocent perverts.” And even though her methods are often misguided and overzealous, she does earnestly want everyone in the group to find Jesus, because it’s the best thing to ever happen to her and she wants everyone else to share that.
This is the attitude that Christians should have. We are called to love our neighbor just as God loves us, to forgive others just as God forgives us, and even to lay our lives down for our friends, no matter what religion they belong to. Though it is extremely difficult to not hold grudges or be offended, we know that holding on to hurts poisons our souls.
To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit. -1 Peter 3:8 (NIV)
7. She is sure in her faith.
Troy: “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”
Shirley: “Mmhmm. Our team’s walking with God.”
Christians on TV often seem like their faith is always on shaky ground, always needing some Devine intervention to restore their belief. While almost all Christians have questions and doubts, that doesn’t mean they are always on the verge of giving up the faith.
Shirley certainly has her share of problems, as I have explained, and while it’s obvious that she struggles with her own failures and being hurt by others, she is dead sure in her faith. It is obvious her character has made a journey and did not choose her faith lightly. And no amount of bad times, discouragement, or her own failures has knocked her off of her foundation. She may crumble down to that foundation from time to time, but she always has that to build upon again and again. Jesus is her rock.
I’m not saying that doubting your faith or having questions is bad. In fact, quite the opposite. To base your entire life around a worldview without these things is ignorant. And even when we become positive that God is real and Christ died for our sins and rose again, there are still going to be times when we are trying to figure things out. But just because we don’t have it all figured out doesn’t mean that our faith is put on hold or one dead relative or broken heart away from crumbling beneath our feet. Christ is a firm foundation.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. -Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
These are the reasons that Shirley Bennett is, in my opinion, the Best Christian Character on TV today, and I hope it’s the start of a new trend in TV shows moving forward.
If you haven’t seen “Community” yet, do yourself a favor and just buy the first three seasons on DVD right now. Community currently airs on NBC, Thursday nights at 8/7c.